News & Current Affairs

September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin: 10 things we’ve learnt

Sarah Palin: 10 things we’ve learnt

It has been a week since Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was catapulted from relative obscurity to center stage as US Republican John McCain’s choice for running mate. Here are 10 things we now know about her.

Images of Sarah Palin, past and present

1. Her five children are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and, last but not least, Trig Paxson Van Palin. According to the Washington Post newspaper, Track was named after the course of the sockeye salmon the family fishes off the town of Dillingham, while her eldest daughter’s name comes from Bristol Bay, an area known for its salmon fisheries. The name Willow relates to the state bird, the willow ptarmigan, and a nearby town, the paper says, while daughter Piper shares her name with the family’s small plane. Trig is the Norse word for “brave victory”, the Post adds.

2. Her rimless glasses are now a style phenomenon. The titanium Kawasaki 704 frames – designed in Japan, where they sell for $300 – are apparently flying off the shelves. Her upswept hair-do is also reportedly spawning imitators. LA Times fashion writer Booth Moore writes: “The untidiness of her updo has a can-do spirit that says, ‘I have more important things to do than worry about my hair, so I just twirled it into this clip so I could get to the real business of governing and shooting caribou and having babies and taking them to hockey practice.'”

3. John McCain picked someone who not only appeals to “Wal-Mart Moms” but is one herself, shopping for the family in a local branch. Not only that, writes New York Times columnist William Kristol, but “he picked someone who, in 1999 as Wasilla mayor, presided over a wedding of two Wal-Mart associates at the local Wal-Mart”.

4. Mrs Palin enjoys moose-hunting and salmon-fishing – and has said her favorite dish is moose stew. Former Republican senator and one-time presidential hopeful Fred Thompson described her as “the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field-dress a moose”. Cindy McCain, in her speech to the party’s national convention, said her husband John had “picked a reform-minded, hockey-mommin’, basketball-shooting, moose-hunting, salmon-fishing, pistol-packing mother-of-five for vice-president”.

5. A month before her fifth child, Trig, was due, Mrs Palin’s waters broke while she was in Texas to address a conference. She delivered her speech nonetheless and embarked on the long flight back to Alaska – changing planes in Seattle – before traveling an hour by road to hospital to give birth. She says she was not in “active labor” and her doctor said it was fine. Alaska Airlines allows women to travel in the late stages of pregnancy. Husband Todd – a commercial fisherman – is quoted by the s Anchorage Daily Newas saying: “You can’t have a fish picker from Texas.” Three days later, Mrs Palin was back at work.

6. As governor of Alaska, Mrs Palin ditched plans for a “bridge to nowhere” – a federally-funded project to link a handful of Alaskans to an airport at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. In her speech to the Republican National Convention, she said she had told the US Congress “thanks, but no thanks”. But US media say she appeared to support the project while running for governor in 2006, though she said the proposed design was too “grandiose”. And when she announced the cancellation of the bridge a year ago – after it gained notoriety as an example of wasteful spending – she hardly seemed to be turning down federal funds out of thrift. She explained the decision by saying, “It’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island.” The federal funding was diverted to other projects in Alaska.

Sarah Palin with one of her daughters on a fishing trip (handout)

Mrs Palin enjoys hunting, shooting and fishing for salmon

7. In a line that has gone down well at the Republican National Convention and on the campaign trail, she boasts of putting the previous governor’s “luxury jet” on eBay as a measure to cut wasteful spending. That is true. But what she has not always explained to her audience is that the plane failed to sell on the internet auction site and so aides had to broker a deal with a buyer.

8. She was baptised a Catholic as an infant but attended a Pentecostal church in Wasilla – her hometown since her parents moved to Alaska from Idaho when she was three months old – for many years. She now attends Wasilla Bible Church, a non-denominational, evangelical church. The Associated Press reports that the church is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer.

9. As hunters sometimes do, Mrs Palin has incurred the wrath of wildlife-lovers. It’s not just that she shoots moose and caribou, she has also backed legislation to encourage the aerial hunting of wolves, as a “predator control” measure. Plus, she has opposed the US government’s listing of a variety of animals as endangered, including the polar bear and the beluga whale. Unlike Mr McCain and to the horror of many environmentalists, she actively supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

10. She is a self-described “average hockey mom”; a biography published a few months ago was entitled Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear. The hockey mom branding could prove useful come November in the swing states of Michigan and Minnesota, where ice hockey is a big game. Her best-known joke so far? “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

Advertisements

August 30, 2008

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

There were no late night text messages and perhaps not the same build up that preceded the announcement of Barack Obama’s choice for running mate.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (29 August 2008)

Mrs Palin has been credited with bringing in reforms in her time in office

But because it was kept a secret almost until the end, John McCain’s choice did generate a fair amount of rumor and speculation.

Was he going to pick a traditional candidate, a safe bet – someone like the young governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, or would the veteran Arizona senator go for the wild card?

The answer came on a private jet that flew in from the Alaskan city of Anchorage on Thursday night and landed outside Dayton, Ohio, apparently carrying on board a woman, two men and two teenagers.

All the journalists who were covering the story started looking up the biography of Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska.

‘Average hockey mom’

She may be seen by some as a rising star of the Republican Party, but she was relatively unknown on a national level.

As he took to the stage, in front of a packed audience, Mr McCain introduced her as “exactly who I need, exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and the country second”.

For observers, it showed Mr McCain felt he needed to make a bold move to help change the course of the race to the White House.

SARAH PALIN

Elected Alaska’s youngest and first woman governor in 2006

Grew up in Wasilla, near Anchorage, and was voted Miss Wasilla in 1984
Studied journalism and political science at University of Idaho
Is mother of five, including a son with Down’s syndrome
Her husband Todd is an oil production operator
Likes hunting and fishing

The two presidential hopefuls have been running head to head, with Mr Obama gaining eight percentage points in the polls in recent days.

The choice of Sarah Palin is a high risk bet that could bring high rewards, but there are no guarantees.

Mrs Palin, a mother of five, is the first woman to be on a Republican presidential ticket.

Married for 20 years to Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, she was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” during her college years for her aggressive basketball playing style – the name has stuck.

On stage, dressed in a conservative black power suit, her hair raised in a high ponytail, she described herself as “an average hockey mom from Alaska”.

She drew applause when talking about her anti-corruption drive, her standing up to big oil companies and even the “good old boys club”, which drew a smile from Mr McCain.

She eats moose meat and is an inveterate hunter, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

One of her sons is heading to Iraq in September. The other, born in April, is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

‘Exciting choice’

In many ways, her story is all American and her values will appeal to the conservative base and to blue-collar voters.

With 80% approval ratings back home, she seemed to also get the approval of the crowd she was addressing, drawing very enthusiastic cheers, as she spoke in a relaxed, accessible way.

It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all
Sarah Palin

Mrs Palin also ticks several required boxes – she is fiscally conservative, in favor of drilling for oil and very staunchly anti-abortion.

Most of all she is a reformer and a fresh face for the Republican ticket.

President George W Bush said she was “an exciting choice” and Mrs Palin certainly adds energy and sizzle to the McCain campaign.

She also clearly reached out to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, who are disappointed their candidate did not make it on to the Democratic ticket, not even as vice-president.

“I can’t begin this great effort without honoring the achievement of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and of course, Hillary Clinton, who showed determination in her presidential campaign,” Mrs Palin said.

“It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

The Democrats for McCain group sent out an e-mail saying its supporters, especially the women, were “ecstatic” about the choice of Mrs Palin.

But other Democrats said they felt insulted that Mr McCain thought he could woo women by just putting any woman on his ticket, with one sentence making the rounds: “Palin, you are no Hillary Clinton”.

Experience questioned

It all made for an exciting day in Dayton, a city of just over 150,000 that has been hard hit by job losses in the past few years.

But the whole of the US is probably now scouring the internet for more information about Governor Palin and trying to assess her credentials.

Sarah Palin visits troops in Kuwait (24 July 2007)
What is it exactly that a VP does every day?
Sarah Palin

Many will be wondering whether she is ready to be vice-president and even lead the US, should something happen to Mr McCain if he is elected president.

As commander of the Alaska National Guard, she visited troops in Kuwait last year, but has a very thin foreign policy background.

Similarly, while she does have executive experience, the Obama campaign wryly pointed out she had been the mayor of a town with just 9,000 people.

As governor of Alaska during the past two years she has gained more experience, but even some Alaskans calling into talk shows on US network television said they doubted whether that had prepared her for the challenge of national politics.

She did herself no favors in a recent interview.

“As for that VP talk all the time, I can’t answer until someone answers me. What is it exactly that a VP does every day?” she said just a month ago on CNBC when asked about her chances of being on the ticket.

“I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that this VP slot would be fruitful type of position especially for Alaskans and for the kind of things we are trying to accomplish here for the rest of the US.”

Investigation

By choosing her, Mr McCain may have undercut his best attack against Senator Obama – if he uses the inexperience card now it will be turned against him and his running mate.

While conservatives, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Bush adviser Karl Rove, hailed the Palin surprise, there were also dismayed reactions from some Republicans, who felt the choice underscored Mr McCain’s weaknesses and was too risky.

Polls in the coming days, and Mrs Palin’s performance at the Republican National Convention, will help assess the impact of Mr McCain’s decision.

In the meantime, Mr McCain and his new partner have something else to worry about – Mrs Palin is facing an investigation in Alaska for alleged abuse of power involving her former brother-in-law. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

She says she has “nothing to hide” and is “cool” about the investigation.

August 24, 2008

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

The Bird's Nest stadium hosts the closing ceremony

Plenty of fireworks are in store at the closing ceremony

The Beijing Games draw to a close on Sunday after what many have described as one of the best Olympics ever held.

China, having beaten the United States to top the medals table, will hand the Olympic flag to the 2012 hosts London at a closing ceremony from 1300 BST.

Great Britain surpassed all targets by winning 19 golds at the 2008 Games – their best haul for a century.

Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the men’s marathon on the final day, with basketball and boxing finals to come.

Six boxing titles are being decided while the men’s basketball final, featuring the United States and Spain, starts at 0730 BST.

Later, the spectacular farewell in front of a packed house of more than 90,000 at the Bird’s Nest stadium is set to last three hours and will include fireworks displays at 18 locations across Beijing.

The organisers have promised a more light-hearted show than the opening ceremony, which focused heavily on Chinese history.

Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who claimed three gold medals at the Games, will carry the flag for Team GB at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony will also see London mayor Boris Johnson receive the Olympic flag to signal the countdown to the 2012 Games.

Team GB have been congratulated for their efforts in a message from The Queen.

“As a nation we now look forward to holding the Olympic Games in London in 2012,” she said.”The golden triumphs of the present British team can only serve as further inspiration to those who will be working hard over the next four years to make the London Games a shining example of Olympic success.”

China staged the Olympics against a background dominated by fears of pollution, worries over security and protests about its human rights record.

But the sporting action has been enthralling, with highlights including Michael Phelps swimming to a record eight gold medals and Jamaican Usain Bolt breaking three world records as he bagged a sprint title treble.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spoke on Sunday of his hope that a UK football team could compete in the next Olympics, will attend the closing event.

Prime minister Gordon Brown and footballer Beckham

Brown rubs shoulders with Beckham in Beijing

The London Olympics will also have a eight-minute slot that will feature a version of Led Zeppelin classic Whole Lotta Love performed by the group’s guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Leona Lewis.Footballer David Beckham will be involved as will the Royal Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The closing show will also feature a duet by Chinese folk singer Song Zuying and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, along with a performance by a 350-strong kung-fu group.

There promises to be another spectacular show earlier in the day when the US basketball team, aka the ‘Redeem Team’, look to reclaim their crown against world champions Spain.

There are also six boxing gold medals to be decided, with Ireland’s Kenny Egan going in the light-heavyweight final.

Other finals are taking place in the men’s water polo (0840), men’s volleyball (0500), and men’s handball (0845).

In the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around event, Russia defended their title to take gold, while China claimed silver and Belarus bronze.

In total, there will be 12 gold medals won on the final day of action before the Games are handed on to London.

August 14, 2008

Around the Olympics in 800 minutes

Courtesy BBC

Beijing

If they ever do get around to trimming tennis from the Olympics, I would like to suggest a thoroughly amateur activity to take its place: competitive spectating.

The game is simple: you watch as much live, in-the-flesh sport as possible within an allotted time.

Like cricket, there are shorter and longer versions of the game, but unlike cricket there is no time for lunch or tea. I believe the one-day format would work best at an Olympics.

It requires speed, planning and a change of shirt. I know this because I have tried it and I think I’ve set a new world record.

Beijing tour map

Between 10am and 11pm on Wednesday, I rode my mate’s mountain bike (cheers Paul) to 19 different Olympic venues and saw world-class sport in 15 of them, world-class press conferences in three more and 20 Chinese volunteers pretend to be modern pentathletes in another.

I covered about 50km, drank 20 bottles of water, went through three maps and met the entire judging panel from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Perhaps the best way to tell that story, in fact, the whole story, is to start at the beginning. So I will.

Like all elite athletes I think breakfast is the most important meal, so I decided to skip the fare on offer in the media village and have a slap-up feed in a decent hotel downtown – they may now be reconsidering that all-you-can-eat deal.

Adequately fuelled and aboard my mode of transport, I set off from the Financial District and headed southwest for the softball. The thinking here was to start at my southernmost point and move around the city in a clockwise fashion.

Having meandered my way to Fengtai, I found myself at the top of the seventh inning with China pounding Venezuela 7-1.

I can’t remember much about the game mainly because I was worrying about Paul’s bike being destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Because while Katie Melua may be right about there being nine million bikes in Beijing, none of them are welcome at an Olympic venue. Not if you ask for permission first, that is. I would learn that as the day progressed.

From softball I rode north to Wukesong to taste two more slices of Americana, baseball and basketball.

Here my arrival was not particularly well received and my gestures to say, “Can I chain my bike to this please, officer?” were met by stern shakes of the head. Perhaps they didn’t understand my gesture. Strange, I thought that one was universal.

In the end I left it behind some portaloos. I’m not proud.

I got into the baseball in time to see Canada’s Stubby Clapp (honestly, look him up) pop up to right field and was looking at my map when one of his team-mates blasted a three-run homer minutes later. That made it Canada 3-0 China.

Canada's Stubby Clapp

I then went to the basketball and watched Spain’s Anna Montanana drain a jumper for two of her 20 points in the win over the Czech Republic.

From there it was northeast towards the Capital Gymnasium and a dose of clothed women’s volleyball. To be honest, even regular volleyballers don’t wear much and there was a lot of leg on display in this clash between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Russians were winning but the highlight for me was seeing Kazakh volleyball’s answer to Peter Crouch. I didn’t catch her name but she was wearing number five and you’d know her if you saw her.

Four hours in and I was at the Institute of Technology to see some gymnastics – the hundreds of people heading the opposite direction should have told me I was too late.

I went in anyway, though, and listened to two minutes of a Chinese press conference. As I left I heard a group of volunteers singing little ditties to each other through their megaphones. One of them might have been the girl who actually sang at the Opening Ceremony.

Table tennis was next and the hardest thing here was getting in. You see the staff are only trained to deal with very specific tasks. A journalist coming in through the main entrance (and not arriving by media bus) causes the system to grind to a halt. The fact he was sweating profusely probably didn’t help either.

This would become a recurring theme but competitive spectators have got to deal with these kinds of problems so I was able to overcome all this and catch eight different games of ping-pong at once.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, probably. I tried to concentrate on Ma Lin’s tussle with Panagiotis Gionis of Greece and not the cute Spaniard playing on the other side of the room.

China's Ma Lin in action against Panagiotis Gionis of Greece

It was judo next. Not much to say here except I filled my pockets with Oreo cookies in the media lounge and saw a Colombian beat an Italian in the women’s 70kg category.

Six hours in and it was time to wrestle. To be honest, it was all starting to blur a bit now and the only real difference I can remember between the judo and the wrestling is the costume. And it’s a big difference.

I also got lost in the bowels of the venue (I’d come in the “wrong” entrance again) and ended up in a room with 20 muscular blokes in blue blazers. They were the judges.

I eventually saw Steeve (usual spelling) Guenot beat Konstantin Schneider, apparently, and he would later win gold. Good lad.

I then pedalled hard past the Olympic Village and pushed on to my northernmost point, the Olympic Green Sports Cluster – archery, hockey and tennis.

This is where my ride started to become a cyclo-cross event. Bikes really aren’t allowed this close to the heart of the “Green Olympics” so I was forced to park and proceed by foot.

The next 30 minutes saw me show my face (very briefly) at the tennis (Nadal was winning), narrowly miss Alan Wills’ last-dart victory in the archery (I saw a Korea-Qatar match-up instead) and try to gain entrance to the Great Britain changing room at the hockey (it was locked).

That was 11 venues and 10 sports in just over seven hours. I was knackered. But then I remembered Emma Pooley’s words after her silver-medal performance: “there’s no secret, you just have to make it hurt”.

So I headed south to the Water Cube for swimming, wandered around the corridors under the pool for about 15 minutes and eventually sat down to watch Malta’s Madeleine Scerri win a three-woman, 100m freestyle heat. Now that’s what the Olympics are really about, Michael.

From there it was a short trip to the National Indoor Stadium and an even shorter stay. It was locked. But the fencing venue was just across the road for me to bring up my dozen.

Fencing, by the way, is a great sport to watch. I wish I could have stayed for longer than three minutes. That was long enough, however, to see Yuki Ota of Japan win his semi-final and go absolutely bongo.

Japan's Yuki Ota on his way to a semi-final victory over Italy

I probably should have stopped now. It was dark and I was tired, hungry and smelly. But I wanted more and I really, really wanted to see some handball.

So it was south again to the Olympic Sports Center cluster for five minutes of Norway’s demolition of Kazakhstan (I think I was bad luck for the Kazakhs all day) in the women’s event.

I will definitely return if only to hear more from the American announcer who ticked off a Norwegian player for “roughhousing”.

The next 30 minutes saw me just miss the last water polo game of the day and follow my ears to the modern pentathlon stadium, where Olympic volunteers were pretending to be show-jumping ponies and the stadium announcer was practising his medal ceremony script (he thinks Cuba is going to win).

What happened next was an Olympic event of its own – the 20-minute time-trial to the Workers’ Stadium for the last 10 minutes of the Argentina v Serbia football match.

And my lung-busting, salt-staining effort was rewarded when I flopped into a commentary position to see Diego Buonanotte curl a free-kick home from 25 yards out. Good night, indeed, Diego.

This was my 18th venue, 14th sport and 12th hour. It was time for the coup de grace. Step forward, you beauty, David Price.

Now is not the time to relay all that happened in the Workers’ Gymnasium at around 2200 local time but suffice it to say Team GB’s boxing captain hit the world number one from Russia harder than he had ever been hit before and he didn’t like it.

Cue huge celebrations from Price and his loyal band of Scouse supporters. It was also great to see his team-mates James DeGale and Joe Murray jumping in the aisles too.

So that’s the challenge. Can any of you top 15 different sports in a day?

Until I hear otherwise I’m going to assume it’s a world record. I reckon it will be safe for four years at least.

August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

August 7, 2008

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Security personnel stand in front of a Bird's Nest stadium hidden by haze on 7 August 2008

Concerns over air quality have persisted in the run-up to the Games

Beijing’s air quality poses no risk to athletes’ health, Jacques  Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has told reporters.

Mr Rogge said checks were in place to protect competitors amid persistent concerns about poor air quality.

He was speaking as dignitaries from around the world gathered in China’s capital for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Among them is US President George Bush, who earlier expressed “deep concerns” about Beijing’s human rights record.

Speaking in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before travelling to the Games, Mr Bush praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realize its full potential.

China later rejected Mr Bush’s criticisms as “interference” in its internal affairs.

Air target missed

A day before the Games, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality was far below World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

It put levels of particulate matter (PM10) at 191 micrograms per cubic metre. This far exceeds the WHO target of 50 micrograms/cubic metre, and also exceeds the WHO target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre.

Graph

But Mr Rogge insisted there was no threat to Olympic competitors.

“Of course we prefer clear skies, but the most important thing is that the health of the athletes is protected,” Mr Rogge said in the news conference.

He said there was “absolutely no danger” to the health of athletes taking part in events that last less than one hour. But he said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than that could be shifted or postponed.

Mr Rogge urged reporters to distinguish between fog and pollution – a point, correspondents say, often made by Chinese authorities.

“The fog, you see, is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean that this fog is the same as pollution,” he said.

And he praised China’s efforts to clean up the air around Beijing – efforts, he said, which would “continue and have a lasting influence on the climate of Beijing”.

Separately, Mr Rogge said athletes would be prevented from making any political statement or protest in official venues – in accordance with Rule 51 of the Olympic charter, which forbids athletes from making political, religious, commercial or racial propaganda.

But he said they were free to do this in protest areas provided by Chinese authorities, and that “common sense” would be used to judge violations.

China defense

Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch began making its last stops on a journey that has seen it pass through five continents.

America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists
President Bush

Patriotic crowds lined the mist-shrouded Great Wall waving fans and cheering, while streams of confetti shot into the air as the torch was lit from the Olympic flame.

The torch, while welcomed in many nations, has also been a magnet for protesters critical of China’s respect for rights.

Mr Bush hit out at China’s “detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists” before he arrived in China for the opening ceremony.

But China offered a robust defence of its record in response, insisting it “put its people first”.

In other developments:

  • The two Koreas said they would not march together at the opening ceremony, a reversal on the last two Olympic Games
  • Tibetan groups have held large protests in both India and Nepal on the eve of the Games
  • China has selected basketball star Yao Ming to carry the national flag in the opening ceremony.

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

Courtesy Yahoo

BANGKOK, Thailand – China rejected President Bush’s criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.

In a speech outlining America’s achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn’t trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.

He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events — including the U.S.-China men’s basketball game — and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.

“The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush’s speech. “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on “a basis of mutual respect and equality,” then indicated it didn’t see Bush’s criticism in that light.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” Qin said.

Bush did offer praise for China’s market reforms. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” he said. “Yet, change will arrive.”

Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China’s leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.

“With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America’s strategy with China,” said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing‘s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community “to speak with a strong and united voice” to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing’s record has improved.

“Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off,” he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.

The White House’s handling of the speech demonstrated the president’s balancing act. Bush’s address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.

And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar’s generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.

The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September’s so-called Saffron Revolution.

Mrs. Bush, the administration’s highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the “Mother Teresa of Burma.”

Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador’s residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar’s heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.

Bush called the activists “courageous people,” saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.

One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women’s League of Burma, said rape has long been used “as a weapon of war” in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.

“This is really hitting … the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty,” she said.

Bush’s speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief — though blunt — mention of the reclusive nation.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: “The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people.”

About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted “Bush, get out. God is great” as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying “George Bush is a war criminal.”

Blog at WordPress.com.